Schools have changed a lot as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to policy changes, schools are looking much different this year in terms of enrollment, also.

As of Oct. 1, Dickinson Public Schools saw a decrease of 271 students from the same time last year, from 3,983 to 3,712. The high school level was the only one to gain students (18). The district lost several elementary, middle and preschool students.

The change in enrollment is most noticeable at the lower grade levels. Across the elementary schools, the district lost a total of 237 students, 117 of which were Kindergarteners.

The sharp decline in Kindergarten students is particularly telling, according to DPS Superintendent Shon Hocker.

He said their research indicates that each year's class will be larger than the next, which created the district's concerns about growing out of the capacity of its schools.

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For whatever reason, this year that growth prediction did not come to pass. In the district this year, just 291 students are enrolled in Kindergarten, compared to 408 last year.

"Our Kindergarten class is always bigger than our first grade class ... Ultimately, we believe that those kids are coming back. Ultimately, we believe that those parents just decided to keep them home this year," Hocker said.

Hocker said the district is considers that COVID-19 and the downturn in economy may be partly responsible for the decline.

"Is it realistic that all 100 Kindergarteners stayed home just because of COVID and aren't coming to school this year? I guess that's a possibility," Hocker said. "Is it also a realistic possibility that some of those declines in numbers are a result of families that had to move away because of the downturn in the economy? Obviously that's a possibility, and it's much more difficult for us to measure and know that."

The district does keep track of outgoing and incoming migration, just not the specific reason for it, and it isn't broken down by grade level.

These records show that the district gained more students from other states and countries than it lost, but more students transferred to other schools in the state than from other schools in the state.

DPS had a net loss of 14 students to New England, 19 students to South Heart, 24 to Trinity and 21 to Bismarck.

Some parents with kids in the district expressed frustration with the district's mask policy, which requires students to wear a mask when social distancing isn't possible. New England, South Heart and Trinity all recommend mask wearing, but do not require it. It is possible that some students transferred to or from other schools based on the policy, but the district does not have that data.

"We don't survey them based on those kind of decisions or reasons. I think it's very plausible that could happen," Hocker said.

The number of students in the district who are homeschooled increased this year from 249 in 2019 to 295 in 2020. This number also includes students who receive special education services with the district, even though they are not part of it.

Hocker sees COVID-19 as the primary cause of the increase in homeschooled students.

"If you have concerns, you're either going to put them in full-time online enrollment or you may decide you might want to just educate them yourself," he said.

While still enrolled in the district, many students chose the full-time online option, which was made available by the district for parents who did not want to send their students to their school this year but who did not want to homeschool them.

In the district, there are 221 elementary students enrolled in online learning, 114 middle school students and 158 high school students for a total of 493 students districtwide, or 13% of the district's total enrollment.